Small Businesses Facing Severe Challenges: ICCC Chief 

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Pramod Goyal, President, Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce, was interviewed by Omni TV on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the gradual reopening of the economy. The following is the transcript of his responses to the questions asked during the interview.

The impact of the Covid-19 induced lockdown has been severe on small businesses, especially those in remote areas. The primary task of these businesses is to survive, stay afloat and then to innovate by adopting technology.

Restaurants, for instance, have had to start using apps such as Uber Eats to ensure a continuous revenue stream, even as the sector grapples with hugely reduced revenues.

Similarly, shop owners and traders have had to start e-commerce operations. The transition from brick and mortar to online will necessarily have its challenges, and concomitant expenditure. But there are inherent advantages, too, that technology offers – the customer base that was previously restricted to in-person shoppers physically visiting the shop or diners to the restaurant, is now expanded to include hundreds more, as online presence will expand the geographical catchment.

Those who couldn’t go to these outlets earlier will now enabled by technology to patronize the outlets. So, I would say that there are challenges, but there are opportunities, too.

The process of reopening the economy has become a hot topic at present. The process will be guided not by economics but by public health. If the pandemic’s spread is curtailed and we don’t see a resurgence after we open up in a limited way, then we are likely to see a major thrust in favour of opening up of businesses, and publicly-accessible venues.

However, this process is going to be gradual, and the prolonged nature of the reopening process will impact small businesses more than other sizes of businesses. Small businesses will have to develop the resilience, the resources to immediately wade through the problem and stave off the challenge.

This scenario is especially relevant to the restaurants, the hospitality, travel, and tourism sectors. Businesses in these sectors have been impacted most severely, and even after the phased reopening process commences, it remains unknown how the people are going to respond to air travel or eating out, at least until an antidote to the virus is developed. People are not going out and not spending money.

This reality will not change overnight even if the government announces reopening. People’s confidence will have to be assuaged and built gradually for them to begin having free movement.

One of the biggest announcements that has been made in this context is the rent relief measure for retailers. It was intended to be a good move. But unfortunately, the manner in which the program is structured, the onus of waiver or delay in collecting rent is with the landlord. And from all indications available so far, the landlords have not taken any major initiative in this matter. 

Clearly, more needs to be done on this front. The government needs to step in quickly to prevent evictions of tenants by landlords or confrontations between them over rent. In terms of other subsidies, I believe wage subsidies have worked very well. It has helped a lot of businesses to retain their employees.

Also, reopening operations can only become possible when adequate precautions have been taken to protect both the worker and the client. Take the case of a barber’s shop or a nail salon – there has to be a mandatory provision of a personal protection gear that the salon worker must wear before the salon can reopen for business.

Individual shop owners will find it difficult to procure the gear that meets the health standards and is affordable. It is the responsibility of the governments – both federal and provincial –  to work together to ensure that safety gears are provided to such workers, and that the safety norms are adhered to.

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